Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation. (1998). Into the Heart of Darkness: Journeys of the Amagents in crime, violence and death. Paper prepared as part of research conducted by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation for the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).
Into the Heart of Darkness:
Journeys of the Amagents
in crime, violence and death
Paper prepared as part of research conducted by
the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation for
the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), 1998
The youngsters we spoke to had all self-consciously fashioned a criminal "career" for themselves. They work within an elaborate "system" of deviance which is characterised by its own symbols, language and rules of the game. They inhabit a social landscape that is pockmarked by violence and killing and that is characterised by a ruthless and macho attitude to the actions they are involved in. In the constant pursuit of illicit action, the youngsters live with the strong possibility either of their own death or of spending many years in prison.
This paper is a journey into their criminal underworld – South Africa's heart of darkness. It is a unsettling journey but one that is vital if we are to reach beyond the public disquietude surrounding these cold-blooded youngsters and begin to understand the human contours of their moral exile and pariah status. The journey starts with their own, autobiographical accounts of how they were drawn into this world of deviance; the different paths they have traversed; the events that have taken place along the way and the dialogue that they have about their goals and dreams in the future.
To some extent, they wear their criminal label with pride and appeared to embrace the opportunity to tell their dramatic tales in some detail. They were mainly frank and open about their actions and often spoke with a hardness characteristic of professional criminals who have had to disregard the dictates of moral reason or other rational considerations for using violence.
Although most newspapers focus on crime on a daily basis, the endless statistics and horror stories rarely help us make sense of the situation that is being reported and more often than not, play into our feelings of helplessness and fear. The voices of victims, perpetrators and ordinary people are seldom heard or interrogated. The reports reinforce the common attitude that crime is the biggest stumbling block to our fledgling democracy without offering any sense of solutions. Similarly, many political parties use the current crime wave as a stick with which to beat the ANC government. The youngsters' deeds hold an extraordinary symbolic power in contemporary South African life as the talk of their crimes and merciless killings dominates discussions from the dinner party table to the highest level cabinet meeting.
While the voices in this study don't present us with the answers they do frame the problem in a more complex way and lend insight into how one may have to approach solutions in the fight against crime. Indeed, it is also our firm belief that education programmes geared to fight crime can only succeed if they take into account the worldviews of the people they attempt to reach. The importance of asking young people themselves about their feelings towards crime as a way of creating anti-crime messages was emphasised by a twenty-four year old hijacker:
The government can only win the battle against crime if they stop saying, 'Hey our kids are wrong, our kids need to be like this and that.' Let them sit down with their children and find out what is bothering them.
The interviews with people involved in crime tried to "find out what is bothering" the youth. They honed in on the kind of choices that lead to perpetrators committing crimes and the ways in which they perceive their actions.
Some of the interview material is highly sensitive. It was often difficult for both the researchers and writers of this study to confront and listen to many of the stories, particularly when the youth were recounting incidents involving direct and often brutal violence. It is important to stress, however, that this article does not attempt to censor this material. Nor does it attempt to judge or create a moral argument around the youth's perspectives and activities. Either of these actions would have undermined what we set out to do, namely, understand why and how youth are drawn into the world of crime and the way that they view their actions.
Description of Methodology Used
The interviews were conducted during the first half of 1998. Twenty interviews were conducted with male youth who are involved in a range of criminal activities – the so-called amagents. The interviews were conducted in or near the places where the youth live. Access to these youth did not pose a major hurdle. So-called "criminals" are not an anonymous or invisible grouping. They are the brothers, cousins and neighbours of people who work in the Centre and in our research team. Neither are they the demonic or cruel looking individuals as so often portrayed on television, in the movies or in our mind's eye. They are often innocent looking, soft spoken and intelligent young men who at times evoked a sense of sympathy despite the condemnation felt towards their actions.
This group of boys spoke about how they became criminals, what is involved in doing crime, their lifestyle, their fears and aspirations, whether they would want to change and whether they feel that they have any alternatives. Most of the interviewees have been arrested and charged at some point but most have committed a substantial number of offences that they have never been charged for. Only five of this group have received convictions and have spent time in prison.
A further twelve interviews were conducted with juvenile prisoners in the cells and the courtyards of the juvenile section of Johannesburg Central Prison. Access to these youth was through a drama project that the Centre is running in the prisons. The prisoners were very keen to share their information and many said that they felt grateful for the opportunity to tell their stories and be heard. They said that there is little space for reflection of their lives within the prison walls because they had to keep up the façade with fellow prisoners of being brave and powerful when talking about their activities. Many of these interviews were marked by a sadness and regret in the telling of their tales. The prisoners spoke about their upbringing, how they became involved in crime, what crime they were sentenced for, their experience of awaiting trial, their feelings about prison life and the ways in which they think that young people can be prevented from becoming involved in criminal activities.
There are obvious parameters to this study. In the interviews with youth involved in crime, there is no way of verifying the statements that they made, for example, many spoke about bribing police and stealing dockets from court officials. The regularity of some of the comments, however, suggest many of these kind of things are indeed taking place. The interviewees may also have felt constrained in talking about the true nature of their criminal activities because of the sensitivity of the information although much of the material is very candid as will become evidenced. The limited number of interviews conducted also makes it difficult to draw definitive conclusions but again, very clear trends emerge.
The Stories That are Told: A profile of the youth involved in crime
The youth involved in crime – or amagents as they are popularly referred to in the township – all had complex narratives to tell about their lives in crime. Their narratives often interweave and overlap and sometimes contradict the words that have gone before making it difficult to disentangle the different strands that make up the youngsters' lives. Nevertheless, it is possible to trace three main narratives that offer some insight into what factors pulled the youth towards becoming a "magent".
The First Narrative: Family life
Like myself most of the young boys who get involved in crime don't have a good family background. When fighting crime, one should bear that in mind because the government must build schools with residents for children who come from bad families. (Glen)
Broken homes and dysfunctional families were two of the most important factors that the amagents spoke about having influenced their decision to do crime. At least half of the twenty-eight interviewees described their family life as riddled with tensions and conflict. Many experienced their parents getting divorced at an early age and having to live with a stepfather or mother who rejected them. This psychological legacy permanently scarred the youngsters.
The enduring effects of the dysfunctional family are poignantly described by the amagents. Glen, a seventeen year-old serving a two-year sentence in Johannesburg Prison says that:
I had a terrible family background. My father died when I was nine and I hated school. I got criminally minded from a very early stage when I was living with my stepfather. I used to suffer a lot.
Some of the interviewees spoke of being abandoned or kicked out of their homes and remember feeling unloved. Steve, a 20 year-old serving a ten-year jail sentence, never knew his mother and lived with six of his step-mother's children. He describes how
Whenever my father was on work duty I would be kicked out of the house. At times I would be beaten for things I had not done. This life went on for about twelve years until I was kicked out of the house forever. Life was getting tougher by the day. I could no longer be neat and concentrate in class. Most people looked down on me and I felt so much inferior such that I decided to do crime. My friends housed me in a very small shack in their yard. We started stealing from cars. I should say that doing crime was not a choice.
Towards the end of the interview, Steve poignantly described the incident that led to him being kicked out of home and went on to say that
If I had someone to blame for all this it would be my father. All I ever wanted was to know my mother. No one has ever cared to tell me her whereabouts I was never mothered, I don't know the warmth of motherhood. I remember I once asked my step brother about my mother and he said it was not my business. I got so very angry that I stabbed him and that is the last day that I was at home.
Izzy, an eighteen year old who is out on probation after being arrested at a road block in possession of an illegal firearm when on a mission, tells how he felt like a burden in his own household:
My parents divorced sometime back. My mother got a new husband who I do not relate well with. He had his own boys and I felt like he did not want me. I continue to move from Alex where my mother lives to Tembisa where my father lives. I never felt loved in my house.
Each of these stories is illustrative of the risk factors that criminologists and psychologists have isolated as the key influences on anti-social behaviour and the potential of a child turning to violence and a criminal career. In summary these are:
the quality of relationships between parents and their children
levels of parental supervision and inconsistent or harsh discipline
levels of family conflict and disruptions
parental reinforcement of deviant behaviour and attitudes
Phyllis Ndlovu, a psychologist working with young offenders in Johannesburg, describes how these factors are critical in the early years of a child's life, a crucial period for the development of a sense of self. She says that malfunctioning family backgrounds leave these youngsters with a 'fragemented sense of self, lacking in cohesion'.
Many commentators trace the "malfunctioning family backgrounds" in South Africa to the effects of apartheid. These commentators suggest that, "crime rates may be related to the effect on black family structures of apartheid laws and conditions – they argue that influx control and other pressures which fragment black family life weakened parental control over children, prompting criminal behaviour. These theories are untested – but if they contain some truth, the effects are unlikely to be reversed quickly." (Quoted in Mark Shaw, 1995, P22)
The Second Narrative: Poverty
But whatever the differential rates of deviant behaviour in the several social strata … it appears (from our analysis of the sources of official crime statistics), "that the greatest pressures toward deviation are exerted upon the lower strata." (Katz, 313)
After poor home conditions, poverty is mentioned as the next most important influence on the amagents' decision to do crime. Again, their voices dovetail with much of the literature that establishes a strong correlation between poor living conditions, low family income and anti-social behaviour. For example, a longitudinal study of working class boys in south London, showed that by the age of 18, those from poor families were twice as likely to have a criminal record as those from families with adequate income.1 In America, studies have revealed that deprivation, whether relative or absolute, accounts significantly for increased violence among ethnic minority groups particularly since it is compounded by limited access to resources because of institutional racism and discrimination.2
The amagents' themselves make the link between their socio-economic status and racial issues. Pumlani, a 21 year old boy who grew up in Pimville with his mother and who left school in standard seven, is a "ba ya gintsa" – one of those who turned to crime as a way of life. Well-dressed and quietly spoken, Pumlani explains how he came to join a criminal gang:
I was affected by the life I was living. I grew up without clothes. I was wearing my sister's dresses without any underwear. When I was young my mother was working for a white lady and she used to tell me how her dishes were not put at the same place as her madam's dishes. They were put with the dog's dishes. It simply means a black man is a dog. When my uncle died, we didn't slaughter a cow because we didn't have money. We bought the meat at the butchery. I was young but I do remember other people were laughing at us.
Then I started thinking there are other people who are living a good life. They are driving fancy cars and I don't have a father. I only lived with my mother and I wanted to help her. I tried at school but it was the same. My mother started selling at the streets and the life started to get a bit better but I wasn't satisfied because I couldn't get things that I wanted. Then I thought to be a criminal is the better way because there was no one to help us. I started joining other guys who were dealing with cars, housebreaking and drugs. When I told my mother I had connections with criminals, she cried. But I did ask her whether she would give me things that I want. We didn't talk because she just got the answer why I decided to do those things.
Pumlani's mother's inability to intervene in the situation and stop her son from doing crime is symptomatic of parents' diminished capacity for supportive and consistent parenting in the face of the distress caused by poverty. The syndrome of "turning a blind eye" to anti-social behaviour means that criminality becomes a parentally sanctioned strategy for getting ahead. At times, it is even encouraged by members of the family in order to put food on the table. The interviews are peppered with accounts that suggest this to be the case. Twenty-five year old Tjovita spoke about how his family's inability to support him led him into crime. He says that:
My parents don't have a better background so I cannot wait for them to do things for me. They are unemployed and I've got to do things for myself. I have responsibilities – a child and family to look after as well as other things to take care of. When I looked for a job I could only find a temporary job and with a temporary job I could not afford myself sometimes. I then decided to do crime and get more money.
For Tjovita, crime provided the perfect way to set off the humiliating social restrictions of his childhood and the fact that "he could not afford himself sometimes".
A combination of poverty at home and poor schooling appears fatal. Many of the interviews ended up idle for much of the day and, as Thebo's interview attests to, this situation is a breeding ground for criminal activity. Thebo, currently serving a ten year sentence for car hijacking, says that he "got involved in crime because my parents did not care for me. They would always promise me things that could not be realised. I needed some money for clothes food and music system and other household needs. So I decided to do things on my own. We spent a lot of time doing nothing at school and that's where we started talking about doing crime. With us things have been easy because we live just near Sandton. When we are doing nothing we'd go around the suburb and do the house arrest during the day light. If we steal or hijack a car we sell it in parts and in that manner we make a lot of money sometimes R8000 or even more. If I had to blame someone for my imprisonment it would be my father."
These kind of financial rewards disrupt the pathways that would conventionally lead youth into the mainstream economy. Youngsters have developed their own pathways into social and economic resources which are far more lucrative than a nine to five job. This is a vital consideration in trying to stop the flow of youth into the bourgeoining criminal underclass.
The Third Narrative: Masculinism
The term "Masculinism" captures the essence of this narrative. For those interviewees who did not come from broken or poor homes, there was a clear element of defiance, experimentation and the need to push boundaries in their lives in order to prove their manhood and independence. One of the interviewees summed it up. "It's all peer pressure, you have to conform, prove you are a man and very brave. We live together that's the spirit". Eighteen year-old Bra Sticker who is currently serving a twelve year sentence in Johannesburg Prison clearly fell prey to this spirit. He is very clever and articulate and was the leader of his gang outside of prison – hence the title Bra which literally means brother and implies respect. Bra Sticker describes how:
My family is a well-off type of family. They took care of all my needs. I was sent to a boarding school to get a good education. I came back after some time and found that the guys that I grew up with were smoking dagga and mugging people. They were always looking nice in the new clothes and they were keeping up with the fashion. I felt like I was nothing with the cheap clothes my mother bought me. I could not belong and I had to because that was my skeem (group). I would pretend to go back to school and instead I went to my friends who gave me a place to live. My parents knew me to be at school whilst I was doing all my things.
Lebo, a small nineteen year-old boy who is serving a ten year prison sentence and did the interview with a bible in his hand, says that he does not "have a sound reason why I did crime. I mean I come from a rich family. My father lives in Sandton and my mother owns a butchery and a supermarket. I used to get everything I needed. My mother used to give me one of her cars and I would drive around with my friends. But I felt like I needed to take responsibility for my life. I felt like I was a mama's baby and that meant I was not man enough to have things of my own, things that I worked for. So I wanted to prove I could do things for myself and I started to do crime. I blame my parents somehow. They did not show me love by giving me all the material things they gave me." Later, Lebo explained that his parents were separated and "they both wanted to impress me with material things and that was not love."
Sizwe, a twenty year-old currently serving life and twenty for murder and hijacking, told a story similar to the above two. He said that "I come from a loving family. It all started at the age of fifteen when I think I listened a lot to my friends. I always tried to please them. At first I started stealing radio tapes with them, not to sell them but just to play them and when we desparately needed money we would sell them."
Steve: "The common reason for most people who get involved in crime is that of people who look at other people and compare themselves with them, regardless of where they get their money from. You just see your neighbour driving a gusheshe (3 series BMW) and you also decide to have one."
There is specific sub-category in this group that warrants mention. Since the beginning of the 1990s a significant numbers of township youth are attending Model C schools in previously all white areas. These students find themselves caught between a number of different worlds. Their new school environment is strange and unfamiliar. A separate study carried out by the CSVR found that township children in these Model C schools all experience strong feelings of alienation, exclusion and experience racism at the hands of school principals, teachers and fellow students. At the same time, these students return to the township where their friends still attend township schools and they are often referred to by derogatory names such as "coconuts" and "Model Cs" and are accused of being "too white to be black". One way that some boys in particular seem to cope with their feelings of distress and alienation in this situation is to turn to crime as a way of proving themselves. They are keen to demonstrate that still belong to and value the township way of life. This interview with Jabu a boy who lives in a rural township outside Durban and attends a previously all white school in Durban highlights this trend:
My friends in the township enjoy talking about stealing cars and because I'm from the white school they think that I won't do it. They think that I'm not strong that I'm not man enough. I want to prove to them that I can do it even if I'm in a multi-racial school. I want to show them that I'm a man too. I must show them that I'm stronger than them … . It doesn't matter that what I'm doing is wrong, I have to do it because all my friends are doing it and I must prove myself.
… says that he is not alone. Others from his school do the same thing.
Materialism and a Hedonistic Lifestyle
Running beneath all of the amagent's narratives were the issues of status, lifestyle and materialism. Success in the township, as has been shown in another research with youth,3 is defined in material terms with particular symbols of success – like cars and designer clothes – being seen as critical to one's self-worth. The most oft-repeated statement went along these lines:
If I steal your car and drive to a party with my girlfriend, everybody will go, "What a car he's driving and every girl will wish to be in love with me."
So although broken family homes, poverty and the need to prove oneself are the main impulses that take many of the amagents to the door of crime, the material rewards offered by the "profession" consolidate their entry into and their continued membership in their new life.
Most importantly, the money made from crime does not only address their needs arising from poverty in the home. It supports a particular lifestyle that is hedonistic, glamorous and revered. It is a lifestyle that allows the amagents to literally and figuratively transcend the confines of the world – the here and now – into which they were born. It turns these youngsters into objects of attraction, rather than repulsion, in their own communities. One only has to listen to Steve to understand this better:
I think my friend and I did crime for similar reasons of our family background but we used our money for useless things like clothes, alcohol, drugs and "vibe" (groove life). Ladies also demand a lot. They don't want boyfriends who don't have any money. They want you to be mobile and to have cash. If you can't afford it, as is in most cases, then you steal it. Even the ladies, you want to impress them, show them that you are driving your own car and that you've got money. We are the people who know how to live.
The interviewees repeatedly placed the responsibility for their consumerist needs on women. Lebo says that his girlfriend who was Miss Alex:
demanded a lot. Clothes, fancy places and jewellery. She would at times tell me to stop doing crime but it was as if she did not mean it. How could you say I should stop working and yet she doesn't stop making demands? Today she doesn't even care. Her life goes on while I suffer alone in prison. She doesn't even come to see me.
The blame that Lebo places on his girlfriend for his materialist impulses is naïve. In reality, our society faces daily bombardment of messages of the desirability of monetary success. There are few who are impervious to the pressures but as Robert Merton asserted 50 years ago in his paper entitled "Social Structure and Anomie", "the means or opportunities for achieving material success are not as uniformly distributed". (Katz 314)
The symbols of success that the youngsters aspire to are specific and change with the seasons. While LaCoste t-shirts were "in" last season, it is RoccoBorroco this summer. The most embarrassing thing for a criminal is to be uwile – which literally translates as "you have fallen". In the criminal context this means that you can no longer keep up with these latest fashions and trends. This means that the pressures to consume are endless and the aspirations for more wealth are never-ending.
"Gents on Duty"
The amagents all describe their first experiences in the world of crime as that of carrying out smaller thefts either in loose associations of friends who "blom" (hang out) together, or in slightly more formal gang structures. Some of the first petty crimes the amagents start with are pickpocketing and mugging or what Thebo called smash:
It's when we use the sand from plugs of an engine car. We use it to smash windscreens and take cell phones and car radios.
These petty adventures in crime are usually non-violent and relatively easy to get away with. The youngsters can still change their minds and walk away from a potential crime without the risk of culpability. This time on the streets prepares the young men to become "street smart" and equips them with the confidence, competence and moral attitude required for heavier crimes. It is the first step in the journey of learning the disdain and cold arrogance required for becoming a career criminal.
It is only a matter of a few months or more before these casual activities spiral into more fully fledged, hardened criminal acts and the youth reach the definitive moment of commitment to a career in crime and become absorbed into a system that is then difficult to escape from. It is usually bravery and the promise of better financial rewards that propels the youth to take the leap into the next "level" of crime. Lebo tells how he
started crime by doing bag smash (mugging) for about eighteen months and then I became brave and went for house arrest (house breaking). That's where I got my gun.
(It is interesting to note the use of the term house arrest for burgarlies. In the 1980s, the term referred to people detained by the government in their own homes for an indefinite period of time. The political meaning of the word has clearly been converted in the post-apartheid era.)
House arrest in turn appears to be a stepping stone on the way to hijacking or other more lucrative crimes. Bra Sticker explains that "housebreaking takes a lot of time and has a lot of complications. After doing it for a while we then decided to be full time car hijackers because it's a quick job." Lebo confirms the greater benefits of being a hijacker and describes the intricacies of the job:
After some time we moved to car hijacking because we needed more money. In one day we would hijack about two cars. We had a good dealer. There was a white man who dealt with the Nigerians to smuggle these cars out of the country. After some time we became direct suppliers to the Nigerians who needed cars such as Pajero, land cruisers and other expensive cars and we got about ten thousand for each car we sold.
Izzy, who earned slightly less money agrees that hijacking and selling "is an easy way of making money. The Nigerians would order a car from us, we would bring it to them on that day of the order and we would get between R3000 and R6000. We are making a lot of money depending on the score. At times I spent two months not doing anything but enjoying what we have accumulated."
At this level of criminal activity, the amagents become immersed in a world that is shaped by a distinctive discourse that masks the moral debasement and alienation of the tasks at hand. Tjovito describes his activities as a "job" governed by the same rules of those of commerce:
In crime there is a hierarchy. You grow from strength to strength until you are up there doing the business where there is a lot of money. When you are there, we respect you and to us you are like someone working on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. With that kind of business you relax and only use your brains.
Tjovito's quote is a clear indication that the criminal underworld is its own microcosm which has its own defined rules, regulations and codes of conduct – not dissimilar to that of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. The system which is tightly controlled and the path that the amagents moves along is clearly defined. The amagents can be seen to be no different from other individuals who use skills, intelligence and planning to carry out their daily activities.
Viewed historically, the revolutionary resourcefulness of the youth in the forefront of the struggle in the 1980s has become a deviant resourcefulness in the 1990s and the structure of gang life and the criminal underworld replaced that of political organisation. The sense of self-worth that derived from fighting apartheid has been replaced by sense of self-worth in stealing and committing crimes, no matter how horrific.
Matters of Life and Death
The greatest joy that a man can know is to conquer his enemies and drive them before him, to ride their horses and deprive them of their possessions, to make their beloved weep, and to embrace their wives and daughters. Genghis Khan (Morton 1980, p115)
The most striking feature of the amagents' world is their despairing nihilistic attitude to violence and killings and the sense that violence is enlivening and even dignifying. The amagents' expression of violence in the late 1990s echoes precisely the joy and celebration of violence expressed by Genghis Khan of his conquests. This is best captured in the casual grandiosity of descriptions of violence and the complete lack of remorse in the recounting of stories of violent crimes "when they were on a mission". The amagents are mostly unphased about making statements such as Izzy's who told us that
I am always ready to kill and die when I am on duty. We do not even talk about them (the victims) when we go on duty. If anything happens we just shoot because if we do not they will shoot you.
Izzy's commitment to potential personal annihilation and of others is not unique to South Africa at this time. It is redolent of the behaviour of men throughout the ages, ranging from those frontiersmen in the United States in the mid 1800s whose maxim "I'd rather die than run" to the young kamikaze Japanese pilots at the end of the Second World War who achieved a state of heroic selfhood through their willingness to die and cause terror and destruction in their wake. What is different, however, is that these groups were prepared for their own self-destruction in the line of duty for their country and they were driven and emboldened by a noble ideal. The amagents are not however, charged with the notion of territorial expansionism or risking their lives in a state of war. South Africa is supposedly in a state of societal reintegration rather than disintegration. They are suggesting that violence is part of not risking your turf or honour. The statement also shows that the amagents have constructed an indifference to the consequences of crime to themselves, and therefore, to others. Tjovita adds that "I am used to seeing someone being killed. Before, I was scared, I could not watch, but now its okay with me."
The amagents are not only the perpetrators but sometimes find themselves at the other end of the gun. During one house arrest Lebo describes how
One of my friends went to the bedroom to look for jewellery and possibly a gun. As he got into the room we heard gunfire. He was shot by a family friend who was visiting the house at the time. We then all fired randomly just to escape alive. We dragged him out to the car as we were firing. We managed to escape and he survived.
The most alarming part of this story is what Lebo describes as the impact of this incident on his friend:
This all instilled moral (confidence) and encouraged him to lead. When you survive from such scenes you then consider yourself as unya ndini (a wild dog) and you become even more dangerous and respected.
The thrill and joy associated with violence is imprinted in Lebo's words and attests to what Jack Katz has called the "dizzyness of deviance" and "the many sensually explosive, diabolically creative realities of crime" in his book entitled Seductions of Crime.4 This aspect of criminality will be explored in more detail below. This may begin to explain the disdain towards the universal motive of self-preservation.
The violence that takes place during a mission, however, is very often not an act of self-defence as described by Lebo. It is often senseless in that there is no resistance from the victims and no need to murder to avoid identification. The cold-blooded inclination to kill.
Violence extends beyond the confines of a mission and is part and parcel of the amagent's life back home. Intergang and intragang rivalry claims many lives of the amagents. Bra Sticker tells how:
one day we went to a street bash (party). While bloming (hanging around) a fight erupted with another gang. They knew us to be having no guns and to only be involved in house arrest and mugging. They were not aware that we now had three guns. One of them grabbed me and I shot him. He died instantly.
The violence also extends to within the gang itself and punishment within the gang is equally harsh. Although the amagents spoke of their gangs being a place where they feel a sense of belonging and find solidarity, a strong sense of brotherhood as Thebo decribes: Our logo is:
together we live, together we die. Blood in, blood out. Having said this means that we are getting into business. In the lives of the amagents, we put a movie into reality. You act in real life. We give each other support. I hate two things – rape and stealing from the township or from a darky.
Thebo's willingness to risk personal destruction to be part of, and to sustain the existence of the group, is readily understandable in psychological terms:
People generally and adolescents in particular, commonly equate their selves with the group … . The destruction of the group is equated with loss of self. At the same time, personal death may even be regarded as strengthening the group. Youngsters whose self is enfeebled can often find that the powerful combination of group membership and violence provides an intense and sustaining self-experience that can be achieved in no other way.5
However, membership in the gangs is also fraught with tensions. Most of the interviewees had their own story to tell or that of a fellow gang member who had been killed by another member of the gang.
In the case of these youth, the most common reasons for hostility and anger arising in the group and disrupting interpersonal cohesion appears to be refusal to carry out "a duty" or because of a "double crossing":
We sometimes kill each other. Say they give you a duty and you don't perform it, they'll instruct one of the gang to kill you. It may be your friend it doesn't matter you should kill him. This one guy refused and his own brother was instructed to kill him and he did.
Gangsters even kill each other. How can you afford to kill your best friend and be scared to kill someone you don't even know.
In Steve's instance, his best friend in the gang was one of the six or seven people he claims to have killed. He feels remorse for his action:
I had taken drugs and me and my best friend had a conflict over a car. He wanted to have the car we had stolen for himself. At this time I was drugged. I had taken mandrax and I shot him and left him to die. He was a nice person and a student at the time and of course a good friend. But I killed him and I regret it every day.
Thus while the group functions as a real and symbolic home for the amagents it also functions as an "anti-group" – a term which describes a set of attitudes and impulses in a group that are both conscious and unconscious and that threatens a group's stability and integrity. The anti-group is not necessarily destructive and the acts of aggression described here do not necessarily cause the breakdown of the group.
While it is highly unlikely that the amagents are unscarred by their involvement in violence, the manner they adopted in speaking about it suggests that they have normalised and even romanticised their violent experiences. They display a pride and machismo in their extreme anti-social activities and none showed any overt signs of trauma or distress during their renditions. Fear was not mentioned as an inhibiting factor. Given that these were individual interviews, these responses were not simply a case of group solidarity. Violence and the action associated with it has a highly seductive quality.
In fact, there appear to be no boundaries – moral or otherwise – that govern or contain the amagents' use of violence. Unlike in the 1980s, when youth articulated strong and coherent reasons to legitimate the use of political violence, the amagents seek no external justification for their indiscriminate and arbitrary killing of innocent and mostly unarmed victims. They have manufactured an internal morality appropriate only to their own survival. The only strand of conversation that suggested any kind of justification involved a discussion on race.
This gross desensitisation to violence, killing and death and the lack of empathy and compassion expressed in these stories, suggests the total collapse of the boundaries between good and bad in the lives of these youth. The capacity to distinguish between these two states of being has been nullified through their gross exposure to, and participation in violence. A numb affectless response to death has taken over. The youth are no longer able to distinguish between the desire to live and die. They have entered into the heart of darkness. How can we understand the dangerous and frightening journey that these young people have travelled into the hinterland of their souls?
There is no single answer to this question. As with all life processes, a multitude of factors lead an individual down one path as opposed to another. The amagents have offered their own views.
While their role in society was celebrated in the 1980s, the same youth felt abandoned and discounted in the 1990s. They were sidelined by the leaders who returned from prison and exile.
The literature on the extent to which a person is affected by their involvement in violence, shows that the less empathy a perpetrator has with their victim, the less distressed they feel whilst committing an act of violence. This internal dialogue distances the amagents from their victims, justifies their actions on "moral grounds" and eschews any sense of empathy that they may ordinarily feel.
Crime statistics show, however, that the majority of victims of crime are in fact black. It is more than likely then that while the amagents are not owning up to their involvement in crime against black people, they have been and are using violence against people who are mothers, brothers and sisters in their own community. It is not clear what inhibits their feelings of empathy so as to allow the amagents to carry out their acts with guiltless impunity.
Many of the amagents that were interviewed were either in middle or late adolescence, a time of one's life marked by conflict between conformity and rebellion, dependence and independence as well as a deep ambivalence towards authority figures. It is also a time when fantasies of aggression are common. Writing on the psychological effects of political violence on township youth, Gill Stryker noted that the township context in the 1980s allowed for common adolescent fantasies of aggression to be "informed by knowledge rather than innocence". This meant that normal feelings of omnipotence were enacted rather than contained or channelled as they would have been in a peaceful context.
While the amagents were too young to have been actively engaged in the political struggle, most would have been witness to the boycotts, the protest marches and the onslaught of rubber bullets and barricades in the streets that they were growing up in. Thus from an early age, they have been exposed to high levels of brutality and violence. While the political conflict no longer rages around them, many of the amagents still live in neighbourhoods which are virtual combat zones. There are an alarmingly high number of guns that are freely available and the ongoing incidences of violence are equally powerful in exacerbating natural adolescence violent fantasies. Their lives are, therefore, saturated in violence. As in the 1980s, circumstances in the late 1990s, provide real opportunities to exercise their aggression and exert absolute power over other individuals.
Why then do some individuals survive their violent context while others become perpetrators within it? Some clues are provided by looking at the experience of black inner city youth in America. Black adolescents are 700 percent more likely to be murdered than their white counterparts and 1 out 45 African American adolescent males becomes a victim of homicide. In the violence saturated environs in which these youth grow up, black youth grow up with the sense of the imminent possibility of their own violent death. A fascinating study carried out with youngsters in one of these violent inner cities shows that one of the psychological ramifications of this is that a youngster makes death "at once utterly predetermined and emotionally irrelevant" and thus seem to "liberate himself from the tyranny of dread". "He omnipotently presumes the future, and in so doing, undermines the power to conjure terror" (p420).
The amagents display the identical tendency to render death in a banal way and dismiss the importance of the future. This points to the same psychological need to remove the anxiety of death and protect themselves from the trauma associated with dying. Hope and good wishes for the future are simply erased as another way to stave off vulnerability and disappointment. Within this psychological framework of heroic living, violence becomes an obvious tool to overcome fear and master the environment and create the illusion of absolute control:
The gang member's enactment of violence may reflect his inner life, to supplant fear, helplessness and passivity with omnipotence and mastery in the face of chronic and keenly felt endangerment … . Black gang violence(does not) simply reflect a defensive response to actual physical threat in the here and now, but rather, more complexly, that it arises actively, organically and post-traumatically as an effort at inner reparation.6
From this psychoanalytic perspective, violence then is a way of building up and fortifying the self rather than a regressive breaking down. Violence is enlivening, restitutive and meaningful in the face of the subjective experiences of smallness and vulnerability. "The sense of reestablishing a vigorous, active, respected and admired powerful self though violence is probably the leading psychological motive for violent acts."7
Katz says that if we examine "the lived sensuality behind the events of cold-blooded, 'senseless murder', we are compelled to acknowledge the power that may still be created in the modern world through the sensualities of defilement, spiritual chaos, and the apprehension of vengeance."8
In the context of degradation and meaninglessness in which many of the amagents live, violence is an instant route to power and offers the chance of being taken seriously and of coercing respect. These youngsters' violent actions overcome the feelings of helplessness and allow for the inner life of the career criminal to be transformed. "The environment that should have increased their sense of self-worth by providing enthusiastic responses and providing idealizable models for their development has commonly not only failed to give violent adolescents these provisions but actively attacked their sense of self-worth … . In the context of an enfeebled self, the need to reestablish a satisfying state of cohesion and vigor are matters of psychological life and death."9
In the case of the mortally vulnerable child … his violence can be viewed as a project of inner transformation … by which he transfigures the subjective vicissitudes of death and dying – terror, dread and helplessness – and thereby vaccinates himself against the trauma incurred by the fantasy of his own impending obliteration.10
Group membership, violence and a willingness to die are a potent psychological cocktail and start to explain acts that appear so irrational to the outside eye. Their senseless acts and use of cold-blooded methods is best understood against the background of their own lives rather than looked at from the vantage point of society's morality. While their defilement of conventional society is uncontestable, their status as pariahs needs to be looked at more carefully.
While violence has been an unbroken thread in the lives of the amagents in the township, the nature of the violence has shifted dramatically in the 1990s. There has been a massive influx in the circulation of guns in the township which has not only altered the power of the amagents but has also made the consequences of their behaviour far more serious than before.
There appears to be several means by which a gun can be secured. Izzy says that "it is easy to find guns in the township. You can find them from disarming a policeman, buy it or find it during a robbery or hijacking."
Bra Sticker says that:
my brother was from the MK army and he supplied us with all the things we needed. We also got three guns from house breakings and hijacking. Getting bullets was also easy. Most people we knew sold them for two rand each.
Guns are not an "optional extra" on the job. They are seen as a vital part of the daily rituals. Tjovito says that
When I go on duty I should always have my gun with me. If I don't have it, it simply means that I am not serious about business.
In each and every interview, police assistance in the crimes committed by the amagents is a central theme. There appears to be a range of ways that the police either directly or indirectly assist the amagents. In the most extreme cases, police instigate the crime. Steve says that he was arrested for a crime that he was asked to carry out by the police themselves. "Two policemen gave us the duty we were arrested for. They even gave us the guns to hijack the car. This was not the first time we had dealt with these police. They used to be our main supply channel for guns and we used to supply them with cars, television sets and hi-fi's. Now we have got arrested and they are still outside probably doing the same job with no charges even though we told the court who they were."
Most of the time, however, the police appear to assist in more indirect ways. Police accepting bribes to overlook the crimes or drop the charges against the amagents are the most common stories that recurred. The price for this type of justice is not that high. For a mere R3000 you can buy your way out of a prison sentence for any crime you commit. Bra Sticker tells how after he and his gang got arrested "we went looking for the policeman who was handling the case of the mort (murder) we committed. We gave him R3000 to take care of this case. He told the family of the deceased that the person who had killed their son is also dead and the docket is missing."
Glen's story is much the same as Bra Sticker's although in Glen's case he felt happy to ignore the help that he was offered: "I've had many situations where police officers were involved in our crimes, for instance, when I was arrested on the scene of a house breaking. Police gave me a lift home and said they will come back the next day to collect the money from me selling the goods. Well I did not know them and they got precisely nothing from me. They kept coming looking for their share but their efforts were in vain and after some time that just looked at me helplessly because they could not do anything except point at me with their fingers suggesting they would get me which did not bother me. For crime to come down, most police should be arrested. Most of them are corrupt."
The assistance that the amagents receive from the police strengthens their belief that they can get away with almost anything they do and this plays a key role in motivating their behaviour. They are willing to take risks because there are no perceived consequences.
Many of the amagents' narratives give vent to a deep bitterness and resentment about racial injustices in South Africa. In the minds of most interviewees, the line between the have's and the have-nots is still a racial one. Most are unapologetic about their racial attitudes and feel that white people are getting what they deserve if they are victims of crime. "White people made our people slaves and stole everything from us so it's okay to steal from them," says Tjovita. Glen added more strongly: "Well, I have no mercy for white people. My mother is suffering because of white people and I hate them. If you take it historically, they are the cause of all this."
Their feelings of racial inequities feeds into the nature of their criminal behaviour. Pumlani explains that the motto of his gang was 'Hange spine location. Hange spinele a dakhi'. "This means," says Pumlani "that I do not steal or make funny things in the location. I do not steal from a black man. I only do those things in the towns or in the suburbs. At the suburbs, we know that the white man, the settlers, do have money. We were the real comrades because we weren't stealing from a black man."
Thebo believes that "When you steal from a white person, it makes no difference. The next day he's gonna be driving another car but a black person is poor just like I am. So my reasons for stealing are not politically motivated. They are economic."
For others, their motives for not doing crime in the township were pragmatic rather than racial or political. Bra Stickers says that the reason he and his gang "decided to go to the white community was because one champ was disciplined by the comrades after being caught stealing locally. We realised it was being coward and we weren't proud of it so we went to town." In addition to his hatred of whites Glen also targeted the white community "because the comrades in the township will kill you if you spin vernac (steal locally)."
Comrades do appear to still function in some capacity of curbing the activities of gangs although Izzy believes that "COSAS is still there but not for the purpose of protecting communities like before. They are more concentrating on academic matters. ANC members also do not care anymore about criminals. There are no tensions between the two. Some criminals hang around together with ANC members. Things have changed."
For some of the amagents their perception of racial injustice extended to the treatment that black and white victims are subjected to. Izzy believes that "When you hijack a white person it becomes a big issue and the opposite is also true. Mandela is not fair. He should respond in a similar way to all citizens." He adds that "in the past when you hijack a white person, it was acceptable but today the comrades will discipline you for that. Even the community retaliates these days."
My experience on trial was a nightmare. It's better when you are sentenced then when you are on trial. You just sit there not knowing when you are going to be convicted and for how long. Days are long and nights are scary. One other thing I hate with trial is that you'll be moved form one prison to another and dying on trail is not an unusual thing, I think that when you are sentenced, you are worth something to the state unlike when you are on trial. (Glen)
I had problems during my trial period. I had a state lawyer who would not come and visit me and things were tough there. You don't sleep at night, anything can happen to you and you can be killed. Food and everything else is also not nice. (Steve)
The acceptance of the fact that a large number of the black community will sooner or later spend some time in prison as the result of the contravention of a regulation which to the black man appears petty and technical removes any stigma from a prison sentence imposed upon him. (The Viljoen Commission of Inquiry into the Penal System of the Republic of South Africa. 1976 Quoted in John Kane-Berman Soweto – Black Revolt White Reaction p55)
There is no doubt that because so many of our high profile political figures like Mandela and Sisulu have spent time in prison and so many people were imprisoned during the apartheid era for unjust laws that this has effectively removed any stigma that prison might have. This attitude will become very clear in our next section of interviews and is also revealed with the amagents, most of whom have spent time in prison. The amagents speak of prison functioning as a school of crime, a place where status is gained rather than lost, a "revolving door" between the inside and outside world. Statistics back up these opinions. Fifty percent of people are released from prison after 6 months. Ninety-nine percent of prisoners are released eventually, and will come out and commit a crime again. Tjovito tells how:
I've been in jail several times. That's where we promote crime. It's a school of crime. We discuss the best methods of doing crime and other things such as potential buyers and pricing. The crimes that happen in prison do not differ from outside. We starve and the food is not healthy so we sell dagga and clothes and we steal from within the prison. It all happens in the kitchen. We even assault people for no apparent reason in prison. Weapons are smuggled in by visitors and we also bribe the warders and get knives. Sodomy happens in jail. It's a daily activity and its also now a business. Some do it for cigarettes.
Bra Sticker confirms this:
After I was sentenced and came to Sun City, I started selling drugs. There is a lot of corruption in prison. I welcomed all the new prisoners and at nights I could get access to the other sections and sell my stuff. Most warders would usually come and eat with me. I used to cook very nice food and I had lots of money through running my drug business. I had a TV set, a video and a music system and I was a 'big ou'. There is no education in there. We go in being useless and we come out even worse. When you come out the only business you know is the same that made you go into prison. If there could be education in prison, one could come out and be a better person.
The prisons are run by gangs – the 26s who specialise in killing, the 28s and the Airforce gang who specialise in escapes. Lebo speaks of "gangster wars" and tells how:
The 26s they khuai-up – they fight anybody for reasons known only to them. These days they are worse. They can even target you as we are talking just to get the head of prison to give attention to their grievances. The other day they started stabbing anybody and also attempted to kill the church minister who came for morning prayer. It's not safe in here and you can die at any minute. You must be careful as they can attack you at any time.
Steve believes that:
Most young people who are involved in crime don't know that there are people like judges and they don't know that life in prison is not pleasant, that you can die any minute especially at night when the warders are gone. Those who are doing hijacking don't know that you can get twenty years in prison.
Despite the sentiments described above and the statistics that suggest prison plays no long term rehabilitative function, the amagents that are currently serving jail sentences do describe prison as a deterant to becoming involved in crime again. This was not so for those who have managed to defy the justice system time and time again. Glen tells how:
Well a prison will show you that you've made a flop with your life. When I leave prison I want to go to Birnam College and do computer science. I know my mom will understand and help with the study fees. I also intend to go back to my temporary job. I worked in a pub in town and earned R90 a day. At that time I never thought that it was enough but now I do. I want to be serious in my life and start all over again. I am still young after all – seventeen years of age. I will survive, complete my studies and become a role model.
All I can say to those who have not started is that crime does not pay. You can get what you want at the time but you'll get nowhere with crime.
Lebo goes on to say:
I've seen life and at my age I know what life is and I say thanks God that I am still alive and to those who don't know I would like to say "stay assertive not aggressive. Prove yourself in a constructive manner and God loves you."
I regret what I've done. I really do and if I had to be given another chance then I would be a positive role model. If I had a son and he came to visit me I would say "My son go to school and learn, don't ever follow my steps they are all wrong and do something to be proud of, not like me. Life in prison is very tough and most inmates are ignorant.
Despite Bra Sticker's status in the prison, he also ended his interview by saying that "life in prison is no life". If he could have his time over he would do things differently.
Izzy, who is out on probation says that "if anyone said to me 'here is a job, leave crime' I would certainly take it and stop doing crime."
The most poignant statement from the perpetrators in prison came from a nineteen year old boy who is serving life and twenty. Reflecting on his life, he said:
I wish I could have my life again. I wish I could walk the streets again.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the interviews is the way young people talk of their future. Many of the "amagents" who are involved in crime do not expect to live long enough to have dreams of a future. Most expect to die before they reach twenty five.
As Izzy says:
It is difficult to stop crime, very difficult. To start with you can not stop crime completely. Some people have made a vow that they shall do crime until they die. It is a single trip, no return. One other thing is that some of us have friends who have died in this business and therefore they feel it is their duty to die in the same way.
The threat of death does not cloud the future of young people in the same way as it does for the amagents but many of the youth were equally disheartened about their life prospects. In the Northern Province in particular, few of the youth could describe any sense of their future. None offered up dreams that they had or things that they wanted to accomplish in their lives. There are no role models in this area. There is no one that the youth look up to and the province itself is not perceived as having produced any people of note.
The challenge facing the government, the police and educators is to find the ways that we can intervene in the narratives that have been related by the youth and the amagents. From the outset we should recognise that it is impossible to attempt to tackle the societal and systemic injustices or corruption that the amagents speak about having given rise to and encouraged their criminal behaviour and violence. Those are long term tasks, the preserve of the government as well as the institutions of civil society.
Rather than addressing the amagents who feel it is "their duty to die in the same way" as their friends, one has to look to those youth that are at risk of taking the first step down the path that leads them into a life of crime. We can perhaps gather some hope from the amagents' reflections that they would do things differently if they have their time again. This suggests that there are real costs that they bear and it is our job to show the youth these costs, to point out the real consequences of criminal behaviour.
Another thing that can be extracted from listening to the voices of the amagents is that life skills are perhaps the key to diverting people away from a life of crime. In the difficult circumstances in which many youth in this country live, they need to be given a sense of self worth. They should be encouraged to see that they have choices, that people with similar lives to themselves have chosen a path free of crime. They must be shown values that challenge a world where morality is debased, where material possessions are feted and where lives are cheap. They must be given the skills to realise these values. Most especially they should be encouraged to dream and believe in their future so that they can build their self-esteem and harness their abilities to the ends that they choose. Sport may be one of those ends.
The Way Forward?
The challenges that the voices in this study present are psychological and spiritual as much as they are sociological and judicial. Speaking of contemporary crime in the United States, Katz argues that "the profundity of the embrace of deviance in the black ghetto" (p318) means that we cannot be deterministic and tackle the problem from the standpoint of background causes or conventional materialist impulses. Theories of socio-economic status as the engine for crime cannot explain the growing number of white-collar crimes.
The challenge facing educators is in what ways one can intervene in the kind of narratives that have been related in the previous pages. It is impossible to attempt to tackle the systemic injustices or corruption that have given rise to and encouraged criminal behaviour and violence. That is a long term task, the preserve of the government as well as institutions of civil society. What interventions then would actually make a difference to people who are prepared to live and die for their life in crime? One can perhaps gather some hope from the amagents reflections that they would do things differently if they have their time again. This suggests that there are real costs that are borne. Despite the sombre reflections of some, all felt it is an onerous task to stop crime. Izzy says that "it is difficult to stop crime, very difficult. To start with you can not stop crime completely. Some people have made a vow that they shall do crime until they die. It is a single trip, no return. One other thing is that some of us have friends who have died in this business and therefore they feel it is their duty to die in the same way." One practical solution Izzy offered is that "each and every yard or household should have a police officer."
The psychological challenges of helping youngsters who are involved in violence are immense. The use of violence to re-establish self-worth and dignity and the attendant joy and delight that violence provides the amagents means that it very difficult for them to repudiate violence. Because violence "carries with it an intense narcissitic gratification of excellent bodily function and power that is hard to achieve in any other way … . The loss of these pleasures must be appreciated and the adolescent allowed to mourn them."11 In the long term, Phyllis Ndlovu believes that one of the key lessons to teach youth who find themselves in criminal gangs is socially appropriate behaviour. She describes how the youth that she has worked with have a functional approach to human interaction. They know how to interact in a group so that a job or a mission can be performed, for example, how to steal a car or find a shelter, rather than knowing how to behave or communicate for social purposes. She taught her group that people are different, that they have a right to different opinions and have a right to express these opinions without the other person becoming violent. She has also tried to give these youth the space to explore who they are and develop a self-confidence that and a feeling of being good enough. She believes that many carry a strong sense of shame of who they are and that they need a lot of affirmation and reassurance.
In essence, Ndlovu believes that life skills are the key to diverting people away from a life of crime and giving them a sense of self worth. This suggests that the most we can hope for is to work towards a less corrupt and more efficient criminal justice system while at the same time providing generic coping and learning skills to children at all levels of the education system.
The amagents need to find a place where they feel like they "belong". They need to become stakeholders in this society so that they too find the path out of darkness and seek out a future for themselves in which they can journey without the omnipresent shadows of violence and death.
1 Utting, D Tough on the Causes of Crime? Social Bonding and Deliquency Prevention
2 Hope, M et al. Sociocultural factors in the Etiology and Prevention of Violence Among ethnic Minority Youth, p59-95
3 CSVR conducted interviews with 125 township youth on their attitudes to crime and violence.
4 Katz, J Seductions of Crime, Basic Books, United States of America, 1988
5 Galatzer-Levy, R "Adolescent Violence", in Adolescent Psychiatry, Vol.19, 1993, p418-441, p433
6 Tolleson, J "Death and Transformation: The reparative power of violence in the lives of young black inner city gang members", Studies in Social Work, Special Issue, Vol. 67, Number 3, June 1997
7 Galatzer-Levy, R "Adolescent Violence", in Adolescent Psychiatry, Vol.19, 1993, p418-441, p429
8 Katz, J Seductions of Crime, Basic Books, United States of America, 1988, p312
9 Galatzer-Levy, R "Adolescent Violence", in Adolescent Psychiatry, Vol.19, 1993, p418-441, p432
10 Tolleson, J "Death and Transformation: The reparative power of violence in the lives of young black inner city gang members", Studies in Social Work, Special Issue, Vol. 67, Number 3, June 1997
11 Galatzer-Levy, R "Adolescent Violence" in Adolescent Psychiatry, Vol.19, 1993, p418-441, p430
© Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation